Thiem Holds Nerve Better Than Nadal In Biggest Moments

WASHINGTON/LONDON, November 17, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Group London 2020 featured a couple of matinee idols Tuesday afternoon at the O2 Arena as the Nitto ATP Finals featured a blockbuster match between No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal and No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem.

Between the two – take your pick, World No. 2 Nadal or World No. 3 Thiem – there was plenty of excellent shot making, an abundance of desire and competitiveness, and last but not least, there was physicality shown throughout their two hour and 25-minute match.

Nadal (26-6) came in having won nine of his previous 14 matches against Thiem (24-7) – all of them outdoors. Tuesday’s match was their first indoor meeting. While they had split their two previous hard-court meetings, including Thiem’s quarterfinal win at this year’s Australian Open, the Austrian was trying to beat Nadal back-to-back for the first time in his career. And he did just that.

Thiem showed tremendous mental fortitude and held his nerve best in defeating Nadal 7-6 (7), 7-6 (4). It took five match points, but Thiem got the job done. Together, the two warriors fought through 167 points and at the end just five points separated them with Thiem ahead 86-81. It was Thiem’s seven win in nine matches against Top 10 players this year.

“Indoors and [on] hard courts, it was probably one of the better matches I have ever played,” said Thiem, who hit 37 winners – 23 of them from his forehand side. “It came very close to last year’s match against Novak here. [That was] also [a] second group match, which is probably the best three-setter I have ever played. Today came very close to that match and now the goal is to enjoy this victory and to maintain that level until Thursday.”

In one of the best sets of tennis this year – and with little margin for error after neither dropped serve –Thiem won the one hour and 13-minute first set in a tiebreak 9-7 as he saved two set points from Nadal at 5-6 and 6-7. Thiem won the last three points of the tiebreak, including set point, finishing with a blistering inside-out forehand winner that capped a six-shot rally.

As the second set began, a statistic worth pondering: In 2020, Thiem was 20-0 after winning the first set, while Nadal was 3-5 after losing the first set. At 3-all, Nadal broke the Austrian by winning a 14-shot rally with a forehand winner after Thiem pinned him in the far corner with a cross-court forehand. Then, in the ensuing game, Thiem got the break back. At 30-40, he hit a forehand winner that finished a tremendous 20-shot rally after Nadal continuously worked Thiem’s backhand. The level of court coverage by both players was truly remarkable. As the match reached the two-hour mark, it was anyone’s guess how this would turn out. Under pressure, Thiem held his serve for 5-4 and found himself a game away from victory and an inside track at advancing to Saturday’s semifinal round.

However, Nadal would have made magician Harry Houdini proud in the tenth game. He escaped three match points, then turned a tweener-lob into a backhand winner to hold for 5-all. Thiem kept the pressure on the Spaniard with a love game to lead 6-5. Nadal countered with an easy hold to force another tiebreak.

Soon, at 3-all in the second tiebreak, Thiem broke to go ahead 4-3 with a backhand winner. He would not be tied or trail again. Instead, he won three of the final four points and put the victory away on his fifth match-point try, ahead 6-4, after Nadal hit a backhand wide that halted a nine-shot rally. The look on Nadal’s face summed up his disappointment, while Thiem expressed his relief with a hint of a smile to go with a lot of satisfaction.

“It was a great match from the first to the last point,” said Thiem during an on-court TV interview after the match. “I was pretty lucky to win the first set. I was 2-5 down in the tiebreak. Against Rafa, it’s obviously nice to win the first set. Still, he’s there really 100 percent from the first point to the last point. I knew I might have a slight advantage from winning the first set, but still I had to stay super focused.

“I think all of the players here are in great shape, both physically and mentally. So, we’re going to see a lot of close matches – lots of tiebreaks like today – and as always, the one who’s a little bit luckier, the one who has a slightly better day is going to win. I’m happy I got it today.”

Nadal, who opened Sunday with a 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev to improve to 6-4 in opening group play matches, was trying to start 2-0 for the fourth time in his 10 Nitto ATP Finals appearances. Each time he’s done it before – in 2010, 2013 and 2015 – he’s gone on to finish 3-0. Instead, Nadal finds himself in unfamiliar territory. He’s 1-1 and needs a win Thursday against Stefanos Tsitsipas to advance to Saturday’s semifinals. Meanwhile, Thiem improved to 2-0 in group play after beating Tsitsipas 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-3 on Sunday.

Following Tsitsipas’ 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (6) win over Rublev Wednesday evening, Thiem became the first to qualify for Saturday’s semifinals.

“Well done to [Dominic],” Nadal said during his virtual press conference. “He played an amazing match, and I played well, too. My feeling is not negative. I lost, but I had plenty of chances in the first [ste] and then I [was a] break up in the second [set]. … I’m happy with the way I played. I think my chances are bigger to have a very good result now than five days ago because the level of tennis, even if I lost today, for me is much higher.”

Both Thiem and Nadal played tremendous tennis on this afternoon. It’s not often that you hit 25 winners like Nadal did and still lose. However, on this particular day, Thiem held his nerve just a little more than Nadal. In the end, he was better at the biggest moments. It’s only bad that there couldn’t have been 17,000 fans filling the O2 Arena. It’s a matinee performance they would have given a standing ovation at the conclusion.

Three-set thriller goes to Tsitsipas

Stefanos Tsitsipas prevailed over Andrey Rublev in their fifth career head-to-head to break a 2-all tie. In their third meeting of the year, Tsitsipas defeated Rublev, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6 (6) in one hour and 56 minutes. He saved a match point in doing so.

Both Tsitsipas and Rublev lost their opening matches on Sunday. Thus, Tsitsipas was trying to avoid becoming the first reigning champion to lose his first two round robin matches the following year since 2005 champion David Nalbandian went 0-2 in 2006. Meanwhile, Rublev, who fell in the third round at the Rolex Paris Masters two weeks ago, was attempting to avoid his first three-match losing streak of the season.

At the start of their evening session match, Tsitsipas broke Rublev’s serve in the second and sixth games and won a pedestrian opening set in just 20 minutes as he dominated on his serve and kept Rublev from gaining any rhythm. Then, on serve at 3-all in the second set, Rublev saved two break points to hold serve. Later, ahead 5-4, he quickly gained a set point at 0-40 and converted it when his deep forehand was returned long by Tsitsipas to send it to a decider.

Suddenly, it was game on as Rublev had gained the momentum and confidence he was lacking earlier. He held serve in the third game 2-1 by saving five break points during a lengthy 16-point game. An hour after Rublev very quickly had lost the first set, he was in the fight of his life and picking up steam, too.

Both players settled in from the fourth game on and there were no break points by either player. By all appearances, Rublev had picked up the level of his game following his disastrous start, but Tsitsipas wasn’t done yet. The match would be decided by a third-set tiebreak.

In the tiebreak, Rublev rallied from down 2-5 and gained a match point at 6-5 after a 25-shot rally ended with Tsitsipas hitting a cross-court forehand wide. However, Rublev committed his second double fault that suddenly gave Tsitsipas new life. Then, the rising Greek star went ahead 7-6 and won 8-6 when the Russian netted a forehand return that capped a six-shot rally. The victory kept Tsitsipas’ hopes alive of reaching the semifinals and the loss eliminated Rublev from advancing.

Thanks to Tsitsipas winning, it meant Dominic Thiem was through to the semifinal round.

“It was an unbelievable match from both sides. We produced some incredible tennis,” Tsitsipas said during his post-match TV interview. “The relief at the very end of putting all that effort and all that fight on the court paid off. I am very happy that I showed determination and a willingness to not give up when he had match point. It came easier when he was up 6-5, but then I produced some really good tennis and that helped me take the win.”

Tsitsipas finished with 10 aces and won 81 percent (46 of 57 ) of his first-serve points. He backed it with a 58 percent efficiency (15 of 26) on his second-serve points. He converted two of nine break-point opportunities and was broken once. Tsitsipas outpointed Rublev 95-83. He credited experience for getting him through such a close match.

“Having the opportunity to play lots of matches like this, at such a high intensity, and always testing myself against these players gives me the opportunity to learn and grow,” who will face Rafael Nadal Thursday night in his final group play match and needs a victory to reach the semifinals. “It is a learning opportunity as well for today. Even though it was a win, I still feel like there is plenty to improve and get better at. I am sure being with that mindset, being willing to just put more and more effort into what I am doing and more sacrifices are going to pay off at the end.”

Medvedev and the art of the underarm serve

During the second set of Monday evening’s match between No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev and No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev, won by the Russian 6-3, 6-4, Medvedev took notice of Zverev’s position well behind the baseline to return serve in the second set. So, on his serve at 4-3, 30-30 Medvedev decided to do something about it – he snuck in an underarm serve to avoid facing break point. It worked.

Medvedev would hold his serve and a game later closed out the match at love with a leaping cross-court backhand winner.

When he was asked about the underarm serve during an on-court interview after the match, Medvedev said: “I didn’t want to disrespect him in any way. That is why I did it at 30-30, not at 40-0. Before the serve, my wide serve was not working as well as I would have liked it to today and he was returning good. So, I was like, ‘I’m going to go for the T, probably.’ Then, I saw that he was like five meters behind the baseline and I had the ball close to my racquet. So, I am like, ‘ Okay, go for it.’ That was the move, just to win the point.”

Krawietz/Mies keep their hopes alive in doubles 

No. 3 seeds Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies, both from Germany, remained alive in the Group Mike Bryan doubles. On Tuesday afternoon, they defeated No. 8 seeds Lukasz Kubot of Poland and Marcelo Melo from Brazil, 6-2, 7-6 (5), winning on their second match-point opportunity. The victory leveled their group win-loss record at 1-1as they are attempting to reach the London semifinals for the first time.

“For sure, it was huge to win in two sets. We didn’t get off to a great start in the first match two days ago, so it was important to come back and play much better. That happened I’m very proud of us, that we came back, that we bounced back and played a great match today,” said Mies. “Winning in two sets is always important in the round-robin system is always very big. We look forward to the last one.”

Krawietz added: “In the round-robin system, we always have a chance, even if we lose the first match. … We have nothing to lose. We had to go for it, we had to be pumped and I think we played really well today.”

Koolhof/Mektic first to reach doubles semifinals

No. 5 seeds Wesley Koolhof of the Netherlands and Croatia’s Nikola Mektic are making the most of their team debut in London They needed just 81 minutes to beat No. 2 seeds Rajeev Ram of the United States and Joe Salisbury from Great Britain to win 7-6 (5), 6-0 to advance to the semifinal round.

“I mean, no one expected it to be 6-0 [in the second set],”said Mektic during an on-court interview following the victory. “We played really well in the first set. So, the only thing we wanted to do was keep the level. We were really pushing ourselves to do that. .We had a good start in the second, and somehow [this score] happened.

“The first set was really close and then the second set. … It’s not really realistic, but we’ll take it.”

Nitto ATP Finals results 

Nitto ATP Finals standings

Nitto ATP Finals schedule

Looking ahead to Wednesday

Group Tokyo 1970 returns to the court beginning with Monday’s losers, No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev facing No. 8 seed Diego Schwartzman in the afternoon session and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic against No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev in a matchup of Monday’s winners highlights the evening session.

In doubles, Monday’s winners pair off as No. 1 seeds Mate Pavic and Bruno Soares face No. 4 seeds Marcel Granollers and Horacio Zeballos during the afternoon session. Then, in the evening, it’s No. 6 seeds John Peers and Michael Venus against No. 7 seeds Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin.